Israel's Rabbinical Courts Begin to Recognize DNA Tests, Potentially Opening Gateway to Proving Jewishness

'Scientists are reluctant to deal with this since it's reminiscent of what Nazis did,' says researcher whose work paved path for use of DNA testing as proof of Jewish heritage

Illustration: A lab worker performs a DNA test, New York, September 6, 2018.
ANGELA WEISS / AFP

Tatiana Bulgin, a physician in her 60s from Ashkelon, has only one wish – that the state allow her to be buried as a Jew when she dies. “I don’t wish to marry or to receive other favors from the state,” she says. “All I want is confirmation from the rabbinical court that I am a Jew, so that I can be buried in a Jewish cemetery.”

Her simple request has run up against an obstacle, however: a religious court’s refusal to recognize her as Jewish. “I always knew that I was Jewish, as is my entire family, but the rabbinical court wanted proof.”

After two years of effort, Bulgin’s documents did not satisfy the rabbinical court. After almost giving up in despair, she learned that she could undergo genetic testing. “My test results had a 99 percent accuracy rate, and now I’m supposed to receive confirmation that I am Jewish,” she says.

Last year Israeli rabbinical courts began accepting the results of mitochondrial DNA testing as proof of Jewish heritage. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited exclusively from the mother. Under Jewish religious law, or halakha, a person is Jewish if their mother is Jewish (or if they underwent a conversion according to halakha).

Dozens of Israelis whose Jewishness according to halakha was in doubt, mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have had mitochondrial DNA testing. Two-thirds were found to be Jewish. The reason for the small numbers is that many people aren’t aware of the test. In Russia, on the other hand, hundreds have been helped by the test.

The DNA revolution was spearheaded by Rabbi Yisroel Barenbaum, a rabbinical judge in Moscow who found a way to use the test to determine Jewish roots. He says he’s helped 500 people in the past five years in their attempt to get married, undergo a brit milah or immigrate to Israel. However, the test is only considered supportive evidence for someone wishing to ascertain his Jewishness in a rabbinical court, as an addition to documentation.

The test is based on comparing mutations in mitochondrial DNA to databases of other nations and ethnic groups. It is based on research conducted by Prof. Karl Skorecki from the Technion Institute of Technology and Dr. Doron Behar from Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center. They identified several characteristics which are particular to specific communities. For example, 70 to 80 percent of Jews from Georgia and the Caucasus are descended from a small number of women who lived hundreds of years ago.

Barenbaum says that using such evidence is progressive, but that some rabbis do not rely on it as much as he’d like. Groups of specific DNA mutations can uniquely identify family branches, differentiating them from others, by attributing the DNA of a person to a specific Jewish female ancestor.

Signs of change are appearing in Israel, largely due to the Simanim Institute, established by Rabbi Ze’ev Litke. He says they are investing huge resources in research and increasing the database, so as to help more people in need.

The test is simple but many people are put off by it. “Scientists are reluctant to deal with this since it is reminiscent of what the Nazis did,” says Skorecki, explaining that this is not a “Jewish gene,” since there is no such thing. “These are tests that allow one to identify any affiliation with different global communities, unrelated to Jews. When I explain this in depth, people realize there is nothing to worry about."

More than 4,000 people in Israel have their Jewish origins examined every year, usually initiated when descendants of immigrants from the former Soviet Union wish to marry. Over 85 percent of all applicants get approved. This does not include immigrants from Ethiopia, whose origins are examined by rabbis from their community, working with local religious councils.

However, research by Shuki Friedman from the Israel Democracy Institute and others indicates that the number of rejected applications has increased in recent years, going from 2.9 percent in 2011 to 6.7 percent in 2017. Ten percent of cases remain unresolved every year.

For example, when Lala Mursalov applied for a marriage license at the rabbinate, she was told to prove her Jewishness. After several months, supportive documentation arrived from Azerbaijan, but it was rejected. She describes being totally shocked, since she always knew she was Jewish and didn’t anticipate any problems. She then took a DNA test and this reversed the earlier decision. “The test saved me” she said. “I refused to undergo a quick conversion since I live as a Jew.”

Some rabbis are worried about the growing use of these tests. Friedman says the situation could turn into a nightmare. “As DNA databases grow in size, the reliability of these tests will increase. DNA will become a de facto portal into Judaism. Anyone who is not a match will be suspected of not being Jewish, or become a second-class Jew. Elad Caplan of the advocacy center ITIM is also concerned.

“It’s ironic that science has overcome religion, but the result serves for examining religious affiliation. This flies in the face of conventional Jewish rulings throughout history, as well as contradicting former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s determination that Jews from the former Soviet Union should not be examined stringently. Their Jewishness should not be suspect in the first place,” Caplan said.

Friedman says it’s wrong to request these tests. “In the past, a person declaring he was Jewish would be accepted into a community. Since the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, the rabbinate has taken the opposite stance – a person must prove he’s Jewish. That’s unacceptable. The process is humiliating, invasive and disrupts people’s lives. When a person is denied, his whole close family is told they’re not Jewish and put on a list of people prohibited from getting married.

An official charged with examining Jewish origins says the process is required, and that previous rulings needed to be changed due to new circumstances. “We know many immigrants were not Jewish, and people have social and financial interests in claiming they’re Jewish. The state must therefore examine this issue. The vast majority of applicants are approved,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. He added the examination is usually short, with some cases resolved within weeks.

The rabbinical courts say their rulings are made according to Jewish law. “The process is conducted with goodwill and sensitivity, attempting to assist applicants, 97 percent of whom are approved. DNA testing is suggested only when an applicant cannot prove his Jewish origins. This is not compulsory.”